Photo: United Silicon Plant. Credit: Lowana Veal | IDN-INPS - Photo: 2017

Shaky Start to Silicon Smelters in Iceland

By Lowana Veal

REYKJAVIK (IDN) – Silicon metal smelters have taken over from aluminium plants as the desirable heavy industry for Iceland. At Helguvik in the southwest of the island, close to Reykjavik’s international airport, United Silicon has just started operating a silicon smelter, while an adjacent lot is marked out for a silicon smelter of similar production capacity – 110,000 tonnes per year – run by Thorsil.

The United Silicon plant is situated just over one kilometre from the southernmost point of Reykjanesbaer municipality. Plans were developed for industrial development around the harbour of Helguvik over 14 years ago, including an aluminium smelter slightly north of Helguvik which has never been completed because of disputes over who should provide energy.

Arni Sigfusson was mayor of Reykjanesbaer at the time. “When it became clear that energy production for the aluminium smelter wasn’t working out, it became easier to follow up applications for silicon metal plants. They seemed to need less energy per furnace and it would be easier to get energy contracts for the silicon companies than for the aluminium smelter,” he explains.

Silicon smelters are needed for manufacturing solar cells for the production of solar energy, says Sigfusson. “It’s important that silicon production is powered by green energy, rather than by oil or coal somewhere else. If we are thinking globally, we must think about these issues. But we don’t want [the smelters] to cause any discomfort for residents.”

The first start-up was in mid-November. Almost immediately, residents of Reykjanesbaer started complaining of odour pollution, smoke and dust. Some residents had respiratory problems such as burning sensations and irritation while others pointed out that if odour from the plant could reach them, so could pollutants. Besides CO2, the plant will mostly emit sulphur dioxide, but also nitrogen oxides (NO, NO2 and NOx) and particulate matter.

The company acknowledged that it had not provided residents with sufficient information, and later admitted that it had decided not to use special filters for fear of damaging them.

At a heated residents’ meeting, safety and environmental officer Kristleifur Andresson explained that the odour came from burning timber at a low temperature to dry out the furnace and bake the electrode before turning on the electricity. This was a one-off situation and would not happen at normal operating temperatures, he said.

But that is a simplified explanation. Sigfusson told IDN: “Repeated breakdowns in the system led to many start-up attempts which should only have happened once, while inferior-quality woodchips to heat up the furnace in the first place, to bring it up to the correct temperature, produced a burning odour.” When in full production, four furnaces will be in operation, although now only one is operating.

The Environment Agency has the plant under what it calls “intensive care” because of the many incidents – including at least one serious work-related accident – in the short time it has been operating. In less than two months, the Environment Agency and the Administration of Occupational Safety and Health have between them recorded 29 incidents at the plant.

In what was seen as a cover-up, video footage was revealed in early January by the investigative newspaper Stundin of smoke arising from the plant in the middle of the night. The company responded by saying that the emission was amorphous silica, which is harmless.

CEO Helgi Thorhallsson admitted at the residents’ meeting that although he had worked with silicon smelters in several countries, including China, Indonesia and Norway, he had never been present when a furnace was started up. However, the company has now taken on a number of temporary foreign workers who have worked in silicon plants overseas and will stay until the initial problems have been sorted out, and Andresson said that they will also be on hand if problems arise afterwards.

Sigfusson hopes for the best, but warns that the silicon plant “obviously has to ensure pollution protection and that pollution, either bad odours or pollutants, is not carried to residents. If this is not possible, its operating licence must be revoked, as it is not in line with the original information on which the operating licence was based.”

In November, local residents started a petition against the building of the Thorsil plant, on the basis of their experience with United Silicon. This was not the first time that Thorsil had been the focus of a protest; in May 2015 a petition demanding a local referendum on planning changes to Helguvik was delivered to the mayor of Reykjanesbaer by a large group of horse riders. The stabling area for Reykjanesbaer lies between the silicon plant and the town itself.

The Environment Agency had granted a licence to Thorsil in autumn 2016 for its future operations but had to advertise the proposed licence a second time because of an administrative bungle. The agency is currently looking at the responses filed. This time, “there are somewhat more responses from residents,” says Sigrun Agustsdottir of the Environment Agency. “We consider it obvious that residents’ experiences with United Silicon have had an effect.”

Meanwhile, up at Bakki in the north of Iceland near the small town of Husavik, the European company PCC has started construction of another silicon plant.

The decision was taken when the Left-Green Alliance and Social Democrats were in power. Steingrimur J. Sigfusson, Left-Green MP and Finance Minister at the time, says that the idea of the silicon metal plant at Bakki came as an alternative scenario for building a huge aluminium smelter for Alcoa, which had been proposed in the preceding years.

Many people were shocked by the Left-Greens promoting a silicon smelter for Bakki, although Sigfusson explains that the smelter “is much smaller and uses only a fraction of the energy that a 300-400,000 tonne aluminium smelter would have done. Also, it meant the pressure was off regarding many controversial hydro-power plants.”

“Naturally, everyone who studied the matter realised that the operations would be accompanied by emissions, but these are far less than those that would arise from a much larger aluminium smelter,” he adds.

A solar silicon plant is also destined for Grundartangi in West Iceland, not far from the Century aluminium plant there. But this plant, which will be run by Silicor Materials, is supposed to be different – it is much less energy intensive, emits much less CO2 than conventional silicon smelters, and will not emit sulphur dioxide, which is the main pollutant emitted by silicon smelters.

Because of this, various bodies – including the Environment Agency and Associated Icelandic Ports – decided that it does not need to go through an environmental impact assessment. This has angered many people, to the extent that the decision has been appealed.

“Very little is known about this process – it’s an experiment,” says Ragnheidur Thorgrimsdottir, an environmental activist who lives in the vicinity.

The new environment minister, Bjort Olafsdottir, is not keen on silicon smelters because of their pollution levels. Unfortunately, she says, she has to respect the country’s government structure: previous governments have made decisions on these investment agreements with the companies concerned.

“I am very sad about that. However, my government will not make any such investment agreements,” she concluded. [IDN-InDepthNews – 25 January 2017]

Photo: United Silicon Plant. Credit: Lowana Veal | IDN-INPS

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate.

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